Visual Liberation is decolonizing the gaze and conception of movies and celebrating the underdog’s vision of life as it pertains to challenging racism, misogyny, and capitalism on screen…and in life.
Visual Liberation (or “Cinematic Decolonization”) refers to movies that are made with the purpose of freeing both the audience and the creator’s minds, freeing them of the shackles of mental oppression, the remnants of a colonized (brainwashed) mind. Whether they are mainstream, downstream, commercial movies or obscure films — it doesn’t matter. But they must exhibit some kind of genuine revolt within their frames. And they must not be films with a corporate agenda exploiting social unrest and “issues” that are fashionable, which is what Hollywood and advertising have done, rendering true revolutionary fervor obsolete, ironic, or safe.
What we forget – or perhaps never directly acknowledge– is the fact that what we regard as a “movie,” in the traditional American Hollywood sense, is a conception of the Western World’s White Ruling Class. It’s disturbing that, instead of trying to evolve one’s own aesthetic and ideas of how to usurp the rules dictated and imposed by Hollywood filmmaking, filmmakers with a social conscience attempt to make “important” message movies by using the very same rules and techniques and beliefs created by the hallmark of imagistic racism and misogyny: Hollywood.
Visual Liberation is at once personal, political, and radical in both and style and content. These are simply movies made as “Protest Films” the way protest music is made and oppose capitalist and xenophobic values (Hollywood) and regards socially conscious cinema as a combination of radical acting, writing, directing, editing, etc.
Visual Liberation is an ever-changing list of films and discussions about movies that could potentially be regarded as literal “protest” films. The goal of this is to remind ourselves that true insurgent art does (and can) exist within the marginalized and oppressed classes who don’t need permission to make films, that marketing companies don’t own history and socially conscious films don’t need to be dictated to and produced by Corporate Media companies in order to be “important”.
Dennis Leroy Kangalee has written, theorized, and executed “protest cinema” and now after nearly 20 years later of having the honor of closing the Brecht Forum’s Visual Liberation film festival in 2002, his ideas and ruminations on narrative filmmaking and revolution have developed into a series of sketches/essays that becoming the blueprint for a podcasts, interviews, and “sermons” dedicated to reinstating the venom of insurrectionary art and the danger of ideas/emotions presented on screen.
In workshops, lectures, or zoom webinars — he teaches by celebrating well known scenes from beloved mainstream films to depictions from the outer edges of our society, removed from the radar of the zeitgeist. His modus operandi is recognizing the power of those under acknowledged films that rightfully deserve their place and critical assessment -alongside the best of Rap and Punk music, for example – and contextualizes protest drama and films as it relates to the author’s experience leading up to the work.
For inquiries about workshops, lectures, or tailored seminars for your school or program please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We saw the electricity finally that had been there all this time as if a current had exploded right in front of us demanding to be seen and not necessarily heard…but acknowledged. Its joy had returned. As if the television went from Black and white into technicolor. And all that time we held our breathes foolishly, as if we were not going to make it. And we realized we were 44 not 14 and that was a beautiful thing… because although we’d seen the lower depths we could at least now imagine the greatest heights. And that was good enough. And if colors can remind you of that- or even your own reflection in the mirror (finally) well damn it you’ve kicked the insides of the snipers who await silently with the cops in your head ready to arrest your bliss at any moment. You won. And you can’t believe it. Cause you could never simply admit that you were worth more than the world you entered wanted you to believe.
Spike Lee had the temerity to remake Bill Gunn’s “Ganja and Hess” – a chilling film about all the modes of vampirism, addiction and colonialism – into a sleazy “art film” that had none of the one the power, spirituality, strangeness or depth of Gunn’s original. Worse, Lee “hipped” it up and spoke down to his audience titling the garbage “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” and struggled to find an authentic style for the film…and a sincere point in making it. It was classic Spike Lee marketing orgy. It made me sad and very angry. The Children of Warhol HAD won: Artifice and marketing is everything. But one thing the artist has over the grand marketeer is soul. You can’t fake soul.
Since then, Gunn’s work has continued to push and inspire, haunt and confound me. Recently, I re-read his play “The Black Picture Show” and his remarkable novel – if not the best fictional excavation of the dilemma of the Black screenwriter and Hollywood – “Rhinestone Sharecropping.”
Now that his magnum-opus “Personal Problems” is finally available on DVD (after nearly three and a half decades) — I hope film lovers, art appreciators, and just even general witnesses to this “thing” we call life — can experience and appreciate a little of what Gunn tried to tell us. Not since John Cassavetes’ masterworks have been available on DVD has their been a more important acknowledgment of an American dramatist who created and breathed life into the screen and off into the embers around us. If you have not seen “Personal Problems” — watch it one day on a double bill with Cassavetes’s “Husbands.” You may never recover.
But start, obviously, with his most provocative and daring expression “Ganja & Hess”.
The original text to my appreciation as published in Shadow & Act in 2014 can be read at the link below. The text beneath is a slightly abridged and re-contextualized version. Especially coming out of my own battle with the critics and media the past month in the aftermath of my own first film, the eternally misunderstood “As an Act of Protest” . Thanks for reading.
If John O. Killens was the soldier of darkness, James Baldwin the prophet of darkness, then Bill Gunn was the prince of darkness… – Ishmael Reed, Airing Dirty Laundry (1990)
I realized that vampire films and vampires themselves are as different to dramatists as the gangster or romance genre might be. Everyone has their own idea of vampirism and what that could mean. And that’s a good thing.
However, Ganja & Hess is a film so overlooked that most people are unfamiliar with it, and the ones that are think its some exploitation film. These people are shocked to hear its back-story that, already, has accrued a mythic status. And I’m often perplexed as to why more filmmakers don’t reference him or acknowledge his contributions publicly. What’s even more shocking is that Lee’s Blood is a remake of Gunn’s masterpiece and I find this all the more confounding. Instead of remaking a haunting delicate film into a virtuosic, ironic “art film,” why not simply acknowledge the original? Is a remake necessary? Spike Lee would have done us all a favor if he had simply written a monograph on Ganja & Hess and called it a day. The world needs to know more about Bill Gunn. And if artists want to pay homage to the masters, we should express what we know about life as opposed to cinema – and that would be enough…All the great masters express and teach us what they themselves know about life. And that’s what Gunn did.
Bill Gunn was a triple threat – an actor, writer, and a director. Chiz Schultz was familiar with Bill Gunn’s work,(he had written Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, for instance) and he produced Ganja & Hess in 1972 for a small amount of money. Gunn wrote a “double script” which led Kelly-Jordan distributors to believe he was making a “blaxploitation” picture — but instead made his own personal film. He was not out to “sell” blackness or capitulate to stereotypes for a buck. He wanted to make his own “cinematic poem.” One must understand the sheer guts it took to do this, to play the “spook who sat by the door” and say “yes, yes, yes” to the money men and run off and make a serious work of art that did not care or concern itself with any of the commercial interests of the filmmaking business enterprise. That’s righteous!
When Kelly-Jordan requested an exploitive commercial re-cut Gunn threw a chair through the window leading Kelly-Jordan to call him “crazy.” Gunn quipped, “I have more craziness in the top draw of my bureau than you will ever imagine.”
Now that took balls. If a white man had done that, they’d have branded him “passionate.” Because it was an African-American – a brilliant one at that – they had to dub him “crazy.”
Well, I always felt at home with Gunn’s fervent vision and his idiosyncratic approach to writing and directing. He is another example that filmmakers must be personal and unique in the way that a musician or painter is.
Directors Haile Gerima and Melvin Van Peebles gave me permission to be angry and politically upfront, the absurdist Wendell B. Harris inspired me to be cerebral, but it was the “The Mighty Gunn” who affirmed my aversion to orthodoxy, who inspired my work to reflect the non-linearity, the odd rhythm, the surreal tones of life’s phases (past, present, and future), and who made me realize that a vampire film does not have to be sensational. Like Antonin Artaud, Bill Gunn knew the horror is not what is imagined, but in what is real. And Gunn’s vampire film is horrifying because of the layers and themes it weaves and does not resolve – colonization, cultural displacement, addiction, etc. Bill Gunn inspired a legion of underground and avant-garde painters and dramatists to be as strange as they actually were. The freedom in that alone is revolutionary. And quite dangerous to the Powers That Be since no system has been as aggressive in their approach to homogenize black artists as much as Hollywood.
I can immediately see how Ishmael Reed (who published Bill’s work and produced his Personal Problems) and Gunn may have connected as artists – as they both eschew rules and are informed by a multitude of things, bearing a collage aspect to their work. It was this that I always identified with as an artist and in the case of Gunn – his unabashed mixing of the impenetrable with the aggressively obvious. It was as if he blew his trumpet and muted at the same time. Those tones not only resonate within Ganja & Hess a film that will leave you haunted well after having watched it (even if you don’t like it) but are also implicated in his writing. After all, the man was a poet of the theater. I encourage everyone to read his brilliant “Rhinestone Sharecropping,” a chilling, Kafka-esque account of a black screenwriter’s experience in Hollywood and the hell that swallows him up. The actual ‘vampires’ in Bill Gunn’s book are the rich gangsters who of course don’t view themselves as racist and are quick to drain the artist of his soul and integrity. They need soul and integrity to suck on…because they don’t have any of their own.
My vampire film shall be quite different, as it should be, but I hope it bears the uniqueness and honesty that Gunn’s brought forth. My vampire is an outcast, a marginalized “alien” caught in between her past and future, as well as America’s. My vampires are artists – some are even literal artists. But they are all sensitive – almost too sensitive. And there is no blood that can sustain them. For man’s blood is tainted. Including Jesus’. And there is nothing to be addicted to – except truth. And that is what ultimately kills.
The fact that punk music as an artistic ethos plays a part in my work is no coincidence. All those who dare to be honest and to be themselves are “punk.” And Bill Gunn was creating his crowning achievements with the actual rise of punk and hip-hop; the first known black punk band Death were recording only two years after Ganja & Hess had been made. And Gunn died at the end of the 1980’s – when Hollywood’s Suits had already returned with a vengeance against all of the creativity set forth even by their own “establishment” pop star directors like Warren Beatty and Francis Ford Coppola nearly a decade before. (The Empire did, in fact, strike back didn’t it?)
In memory of Bill Gunn, I post this remarkable letter written to the NY Times in 1973 as he was defending his art and trying to teach a few lessons in the process. Of course they probably had no idea why he was so “ornery” and they probably smirked and called him “just another bitter crazy black man.” And of course not even the great liberal East Coast critics could admit that THE ONLY AMERICAN FILM SHOWN IN CRITICS WEEK AT CANNES IN 1973 WAS “GANJA & HESS.” (Not other classics like Mean Streets. Not Serpico. But Ganja & Hess. Now that says something!)
I’m not shocked. Of course they labeled him “crazy.” Somehow they don’t, and never will, understand not only the Black consciousness of the Diaspora, but the genius inherent in a handful of living artists. Why? Very simple: the establishment prefers their artists dead.
I love you Bill.
* This is the text of a famous letter sent to the NY Times from Bill Gunn in 1973. Gunn was the legendary director of the cult classic “Ganja & Hess”, “Stop,” and the post-modern domestic drama “Personal Problems.” To the Editor: (NY Times)
There are times when the white critic must sit down and listen. If he cannot listen and learn, then he must not concern himself with black creativity. A children’s story I wrote speaks of a black male child that dreamed of a strong white golden haired prince who would come and save him from being black. He came, and as time passed and the relationship moved forward, it was discovered that indeed the black child was the prince and he had saved himself from being white. That, too, is possible.
I have always tried to imagine the producers waiting anxiously for the black reviewers’ opinions of “The Sound of Music” or “A Clockwork Orange.” I want to say that it is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country – for reasons too private to expose to the arrogance of white criticism. One white critic left my film “Ganja and Hess,” after 20 minutes and reviewed the entire film. Another was to see three films in one day and review them all. This is a crime.
Three years of three different people’s lives grades in one afternoon by a complete stranger to the artist and to the culture. A.H. Weiler states in his review of “Ganja and Hess” that a doctor of anthropology killed his assistant and is infected by a blood disease and becomes immortal. But this is not so, Mr. Weiler, the assistant committed suicide. I know this film does not address you, but in that auditorium you might have heard more than you were able to over the sounds of your own voice. Another critic wondered where was the race problem. If he looks closely, he will find it in his own review.
If I were white, I would probably be called “fresh and different. If I were European, “Ganja and Hess” might be “that little film you must see.” Because I am black, do not even deserve the pride that one American feels for another when he discovers that a fellow countryman’s film has been selected as the only American film to be shown during “Critic’s Week” at the Cannes Film Festival, May 1973. Not one white critic from any of the major newspapers even mentioned it.
I am very proud of my ancestors in “Ganja and Hess.” They worked hard, with a dedication to their art and race that is obviously foreign to the critics. I want to thank them and my black sisters and brothers who have expressed only gratitude and love for my effort.
When I first came into the “theatre,” black women who were actresses were referred to as “great gals” by white directors and critics. Marlene Clark, one of the most beautiful women and actresses I have ever known, was referred to as a “brown-skinned looker” (New York Post). That kind of disrespect could not have been cultivated in 110 minutes. It must have taken a good 250 years.
Your newspapers and critics must realize that they are controlling black theater and film creativity with white criticism. Maybe if the black film craze continues, the white press might even find it necessary to employ black criticism. But if you can stop the craze in its tracks, maybe that won’t be necessary.
Bill Gunn Author and director of “Ganja and Hess” New York, 1973
Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.
To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives.
The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee (originally “Dennis Leroy Moore“), who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.
The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.
We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.”
The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations.
Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.
Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.
These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has.
In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.
Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.
Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.
The more honest you are in your art, the more dishonest you feel you haveto become in your life.
There’s something broken down, something imminent when you’ve spilled your guts. And you can’t go back and say sorry or I didn’t mean that. Truth, like baby chicks, need to be protected. But we don’t live in no incubator. As soon as you leave the art or whatever you may have created – even if its just a thought or a perfunctory mark on the cave wall (to prove you existed) – you have a choice to make when you back out into “their” world. You can swim upstream and go against the current – but you must be prepared to pay the price. It’s hard revealing the boils and sores on your soul, it’s like an acne-marred face that could be beautiful if it could see beyond itself and into another person’s eyes…I shared a photograph that I took of a lovely woman with a “mental affliction” who had the greatest glimmer I had ever seen, in fact she made me almost ashamed to complain about the death-riot in my head and my dry mouth…I showed it to my counselor and they all neatly decided there was something wrong with me. Why? Cause in the photo a splendid stream of saliva stretched across the yarn of this young woman’s face like a St. Bernard in all its glory. And they said that was sick, that I was a sick sick man.
And I lied and said “Oh, my. I did not notice that. That’s obviously a mistake, of course that’s not beautiful, of course I don’t think – “
But it was too late.
Now I’m done, un-done, with none, kaput. Finished.
And so because I no longer have to worry about offending the people whose obscene views of life berate and insult me I can at least – again – be honest and free to not be embarrassed by my desire to feel or be feeled or be feel-ing…all that spins and flows through my veins.
And now, especially, when they say: “Oh, may I share a poem with you?” I will watch to see where it comes from.
And if they pull it out of their pocket instead of their spleen I’ll know that I am still in hell.
(originally published in the 2010 chapbook Lying Meat)
A link to my latest essay, “The End of the Imagination” — an updated, refurbished, and almost completely re-written exploration I had begun to explore in 2016. This is an essay one am not only proud of…but, sadly, one that seems to crystallize how I feel now and how I have felt for a long time. Thank you to Brian Alessandro and Lupe Rodarte for once again having the courage to publish work that is challenging, personal, and radical.
“The critic discusses the medicine, the artist administers it. It is neither the job of the creative artist nor the creative critic to make you feel good. It is not our job to provide hope, but truth. The artist gives you truth at all costs. The critic – merely interprets and records what is before him and tries to illuminate certain things we prefer to keep in an artist’s shadow. Or his closet.
Once you have usurped true creativity with an eye towards consumerism and advertising culture you have turned your back from the North Star and have settled on the ethos of Madison Avenue. When banks become proselytizers of culture instead of the individual artist you are in a wasteland.
And wastelands are living death brought to realization by inability to imagine.”
A film that started with the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999…and resuscitated it’s social relevance and artistic merit itself, pathetically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Death’s energy may kickstart the wheel of protest art but it is the hope of a creative retaliation that that makes it explode….
“When will American cinema catch up to the full-throttle legacy of Rebel music and songs that declaim change and challenge authority?”
– Robert Kramer, American Radical Filmmaker (Ice, Milestones)
When all is said and done
you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried. Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING. And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience. The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee. Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels. There is no more time for games. This ends it all. Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world. And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.
It is the systemic racism and hatred of the white man’s organized political structure that gives credence to the 2001 film As an Act of Protest which depicts the downward spiral of a Black actor who questions the morality of practicing art in the face of a hostile and savage world that seeks to annihilate Black people in the United States of America.
After a successful re-emergence of this cult classic in 2015, Speller St Films is preparing to finally release a limited edition of the DVD replete with a special facsimile of the original screenplay and the notes that made up my own conception of ‘Third Cinema 2000: a cocktail of guerrilla film-making and the political stringency of Black and Brown peoples oppressed and colonized throughout the world, who not only are conscious of their condition, but seek to change it by “any means necessary.” As an Act of Protest is the anti-Spike Lee version of a socially conscious films and attacks racism from the oppressed’s point of view with no irony or pop-art trappings; no advertising hipness or cool slang. It is meant to destroy the oppressor and all who saddles his gaze with his and uplift the dignity of the radical who fights him. It is a direct descendant of the gravity of Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama and downright dangerous Blacks films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door.
Acknowledged by Variety in 2002 as being a “powerful” film that aims to “teach and shock,” it was heralded by many on the underground and marginalized film critics (such as Kam Williams and Hugh Pearson) who championed the film when mainstream papers refused to address it. Woefully pertinent and tragically eternally relevant in the racist world we live in, As an Act of Protestis a gritty, poetic, theatrical drama that does what the best conscious hip-hop albums did and what the gnarliest politically-tinged punk albums sought to do: it speaks truth and implicates us all in the decision-making of how we are going to live our lives.
We are the children of concrete and steel
This is the place where the truth is concealed
This is the time when the lie is revealed
Everything is possible, but nothing is real
– Vernon Reid, Type (Living Colour)
Running parallel through his arteries is Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol. These are his bare bones influences and they helped to liberate what he had held inside.
“Art is my outlet, connection, retreat, my pleasures jumbled with my pain, art is my therapy”. – Scarecrow
A scarecrow in the traditional sense is a figure made up to resemble a human being set up to frighten crows and other birds away from a field where crops are planted. A scarecrow may be frightening, but it’s not literally dangerous. The same can be said for works of art that exceed the boundaries of our imagination, erase them altogether, or simply remind us that no matter how horrifying the world is – it is our lack of inner vision and reflection that makes it all the more ugly. A bomb destroying a tent of doctors, pregnant women and sick children is loathsome. But to not acknowledge this horror inside of us to begin with is even worse. To turn away, ignore, pretend – is the greatest of sins. And in our times we are all in collusion, we’re all guilty of seeking refuge away from not only the horror but anything that may make us tick and writhe as deeply feeling human beings. Only art can sustain man’s senses and humanity in a rapidly eroding society that is full of aggression and hostility towards all things affirming, conscious, loving, honest, celebratory, and rebellious. The governments of the world no longer need to lift a finger to oppress or imprison: we do this for them – to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters around the world. The tiny moments we don’t are often initiated by taking in a work of art or allowing ourselves to be humbled.
The work of an artist aptly named Scarecrow (Cro Dadi) does both.
Cro’s painting A Joyful:
Upon seeing it, I immediately felt that it was as if someone, something, somehow – fell in between the hard resilient lines of a chalk drawing and a tenuous floating dream…What is most compelling about Cro’s work, aside from its seemingly effortless quality (great art is like breathing my wife always reminds me, no matter how dense it always leaves the impression that its creator is one with the work, that they could literally not do anything other than the work itself) is the fact that there is so much going on. But it’s rendered ‘simply’. I use ‘simply’ in the Charles Mingus sense – Mingus always wanted complex aspects of life succinctly reduced into sober and clear notions and feelings, so this way no matter how cacophonous or multitudinous a work of jazz might be, its meaning would always shine through– for the spaces within it would allow light in. Sometimes we don’t see the rationale or the thought behind complex works that may look like a mess to an untrained (or “un-initiated”) eye. But there is a crack in everything as Leonard Cohen tells us. And that is how the light (art) gets in.
These artworks are eternal vistas into a whole other world, a complex web into a deeper understanding of ourselves…
For several months I kept an outsized, zoomed-in rendering of this piece above as a screensaver. Blown up, the flower in the center of the image comes to resemble a strange creature, an insect perhaps, or is it a tragic face awash in water behind bars? It may be sad, but it is not a despairing image. It is an affirming one. And it is all the more affirming that a living artist created it and that a living artist can still breathe life into a canvas.
Art in general – great art, in particular – always rejuvenates some aspect of the human condition while illuminating the parts we may have forgotten — but when a contemporary living artist who still breathes and sweats on the planet as we all do – manages to cut through the gel that is beginning to harden upon the crust of the zeitgeist – it is something we should celebrate. When art can still give chills it is cause for celebration. Especially since it is wrought by an artist who has not been bought by the establishment or some venal Capitalist gallery whose prime objective is to remove the artist from the very people who initially inspired or understood his work, to begin with.
Scarecrow is an Outsider Artist. Not just because he has no formal training, but because he has, what he creates, what it means to create, and who his audience is. (If you go on online or visit his Facebook page you will be astounded to see the variety of people taken by his work and his fan base is a genuine arsenal of individuals including myself who can only, without blinking an eye, give in to this modest phenomenon that has captured our hearts and minds). He’s an Outsider Artist because his values are outside the realm of corporate art galleries and his reasons for creating have nothing to do with being jaded or cynical. He’s truly independent because (unlike the “Independent Filmmakers” – an innocuous term) he has an and catalogs and sells his own artwork himself, without the bureaucracy or pettiness of a curator or agent. No one has held his hand or tried to broker high-end deals for him at any of the Art Basels. No. That would be beneath him. And while those people give him their money – it is the support of the near-to-the-ground people of all colors and stripes – that Cro’s own network of support has been built upon. And while he is humble about this, it is no small task. The Cro appreciates the people who have taken the time to write him, comment on his artwork, share one of his images, purchase one of his paintings, and gaze into one of his drawings…He does what he does for reasons no NYC gallery or sneering art dealer would ever understand. Artists everywhere should take note and follow his example.
Ever so loud was his silence…
There are many creative people on this planet, but very few are artists. There are many paintings and novels and plays being done — but very few of them are works of art. There are far too many deluded wanna-be Rappers and Actors. And sadly there are numerous creatures on this planet who have usurped and perverted the term “artist” to such an extent that the real artists no longer want anything to do with “art” or “the arts” for fear of losing themselves, becoming infected by the dilettantes and the culture of irony that has made its mark on our world. (Scarecrow himself has stated that instead of the hackneyed term “artist”, he thinks of himself as a Creative Portal, a conduit in which endless creative expression flows. This intrigues me because if memory serves me right, the great theater director Peter Brook once wrote that even the term “Director” should be replaced by something else, it was not only inaccurate – but a frustrating term to begin with!)
Nevertheless, having something to say is the fundamental ingredient for being an artist, but having a compulsion to express it is what seals your fate.
The Scarecrow is such an artist.
Born in Harlem in 1965, the artist lovingly referred to as Cro Dadi (that’s how he signs his work) – is an autodidact and a self-healing individual who came to art through a burst of pain. In 1997 he had a terrifying brush with death and nearly saw the other side as a result of a car accident. “The torch was lit” as he proclaimed in his Artist’s Statement on Tumblr.
The more he created the healthier he got. And as his health improved, so did his desire…to be…more creative.
Gordon Parks stated it is a ‘choice of weapons’ in what we choose to fight with. Some of us turn to guns, some the Bible, others the instruments of creativity. And Scarecrow himself knows this well. For it was pens, pencils, paint crayons, markers and scissors. And saying it this way – this litany takes on an almost biblical implication. He painted, he drew, he cut, he blurred. And people liked the work and people bought the work. And the curse of the car accident became a blessing, unlocking a well of creativity and vision…giving birth to the Scarecrow: an artist who would defy the demons of his world with a combative and compassionate art.
A near-twenty year span of creativity consumed him and with every day objects – pens, pencils, paint, crayons, markers and scissors – the Cro expresses the impressions and textures he remembers from his earlier NYC days. The swirls, the dynamic movement, the urban luster of those heady days of Pop Art’s last sigh and Hip-Hops golden age: somewhere in his veins is the pulse of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and Krs-One. Running parallel through his arteries is Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol. These are his bare bones influences and they helped to liberate what he had held inside. Cro Dadi is a prime example of an artist being born out of his responses and unique sensitivity to the stimulants of his environment and the aesthetic responses of a particular atmosphere – which can go on to shape and influence how one filters and sees the world and processes their own experiences internally.
” I never even considered being formally taught about art…just traveling the boroughs of NY exposed me to all that creativity had to offer… My New York experience manifests itself through my art. Abstractly I assign, define and interpret color, shape, line, space and time.” — Scarecrow
LITERARY ACTION PAINTING
What is most interesting to discover is that Scarecrow is actually mostly known for his “conversation peace” collection of collage works and the when the opportunity arises for a live performance, in high volume with inexplicable velocity scarecrow redefines the words Art and Show. After seeing his work or a live performance, Scarecrow really makes you “re reevaluate” that item so common to us all, a pen.
— from Tumblr
While I myself have never been blessed to witness one of Scarecrow’s live ‘Art Shows,’ it must be noted that his works have a literary dimension which defies the separation between word and image and which imbues his own artwork with a literal poetic alliance: his titles are poems themselves. And while not actual haikus, they work on the soul in a very similar way. Swift, like jackknives in the air, they are direct without giving up their mystery. The title of one of his masterpieces:
“Start of a sleepless nite
instantly sets the tone and mood and yet works so powerfully on its own, simply as a phrase. I quite like how the title itself feels like the mood being expressed. Neurotic lines, a spindled tone. The drawing itself is a black ink orchestra of faces, half-faces, eyes all enmeshed over figures and musical signs, notes, what have you…But even if one were blind, one could appreciate the emotional and intellectual scope of Scarecrow’s work just by hearing one of his title’s read aloud. This endows his work with a different dimension, a new sort of cub-ism in some respects.
“My art is as an act of protest against the preconceived notions of what art is…” — Scarecrow
BY SELECTIVE ANGELS THE ONE THEY PROTECT AND SOLELY BY THEIR HAND I THUS STAND BLESSED AND ERECT CRO
Scarecrow’s works are like the expressions of objects going through crisis or celebrations (he uses “meltdown” in titles as quickly as he’ll inject “playground”); they exist in states of extremes (as all art should, despite the west’s misunderstood alliance with notions of subtlety) and they come alive as nervous breakdowns, epiphanies, psychedelic confessions, and electric rays and squiggles that exist in the night – as if neon signs had exploded into the air and then re-assembled themselves to not advertise for vacancies but partitions of the soul. His art consoles and provokes; it is unapologetically Black American and righteous and it seeks to do many things at once.
Scarecrow’s collages are haunting and literal revelations: they present jagged and ripped shards of paper and the images beneath them. Morphed faces, obscuras, blunted perceptions, crunched-in, pushed-down, crackling stories that announce themselves in an urbane blast of truth. I’ve always seen collages as the city man’s version of the countryman’s wood-carvings. Cro’s collages are more akin to some torn notebook rather than an effete presentation of multi-layered artworks. In the best tradition of collage art (one of the hardest things to do in my unschooled opinion), Cro gives you a few moods and ideas at once. Like the best jazz a great deal is implied but the message is quite overt. There are overriding themes in his collages and of course his texts (which, in case I have not made it clear, are now becoming almost as famous as his paintings themselves) help to define his works and the impulses behind them.
Reflections of a Past Self “So much blues earned/Without an instrument to play” – Cro Dadi
Before “recycling” became fashionable Scarecrow, for years, was using found objects as a catalyst for his art…
Some of Scarecrow’s work has a stop-motion effect. His Bo Diddley, collage, for example, proudly proclaiming the rock and roll revolutionary’s evolution from a “nothing into an American something” is a prime example of this near-animation effect. Everything from the ragged microphone patch to Diddley’s now-iconic cigar box homemade guitar – registers the ‘down home’ tradition of Do-it-yourself-frame-by-frame manual illustrative-filmmaking and a sort of nostalgia that may very soon end up becoming part of the American Establishment’s property. The Powers That Be – corporations, governments, architects of the New Mass Media Pop Culture Zeitgeist and their offspring who now run museums — will, one day, take all the owned memories of artists such as Bo Diddley and will try to pretend as if rebels like Diddley did not actually create himself. Success stories are often re-woven by the establishment; but its the artworks created by the outsiders and the underdogs that best cultivate, capture, retain, and reiterate the majesty and importance of men like Bo Diddley. For only an outlaw artist can pay real homage to an outlaw musician:
ROCK ROLL SOUL
INNOVATOR FROM NOTHING TO AN AMERICAN SOMETHING
Perhaps Cro’s best works, however, are his seemingly most urgent ones. A solitary masterpiece like “Insomniacs Playground,” has this quality as well as his pen and ink marker pieces such as “Stained People Through Stained Glass” which has an immediate power and enough for the eye to linger upon repeatedly, allowing Cro’s perception of stained people (the afflicted?) to become ours.
THROUGH STAINED GLASS
I could not help but see the colorful mélange of figures as mangled birds as witnessed through a kaleidoscope. And this is such an integral part of experiencing and understanding an artwork: allowing our perceptions to change and then becoming one with the artist’s work. Even if what we see isn’t intended. It’s still a correct assessment of his vision. For when all is said and done, it is myself I learn about when viewing a work of art. Even when I think I’m learning about the creator himself.
“Is it 5 o’clock yet?”
[On] Dec 31 2015
will be retiring
Thank you all for your continued support throughout
There is always something humbling and mysterious when an artist – perhaps even at the peak of their powers – removes himself from the spotlight. Or respectfully washes his paintbrush and leaves them to dry – and to be doused by someone else. The reasons for retirement can sometimes be as enigmatic as one’s suicide or why people fall in love with the people they do.
But it is also so delicately conscious and generous because when an artist says goodbye – he is letting you know in his own way that he may no longer have much to share with you. He may have things he wants to express – man will always express – but he may not necessarily share them. And that’s okay, too of course. Because he has already given himself to you. Sometimes an artist needs to keep a piece of himself in his own pocket.
Nervous systems are passed along through every canvas, and there is a time when that must stop. Whether it is because the Artist wants to move on or spend concerted energy on family or raising animals or building a woodshed or feeding the poor or devoting himself to a God in a whole other way or…picking his fingernails. It doesn’t matter. Remember Miles Davis retired several times. And his final retirement was due to the fact that he “couldn’t hear the music” inside his head anymore.
A new & final phase has begun for the Cro: a harmonious collaboration with Jerry Ray Orr, a fine artist in his own right, proving again that two artists can jointly create a singular piece. They recently had a successful joint-exhibition in North Carolina (birthplace of Romare Bearden). One of the hardest things to do for a painter or a novelist is to create a work with another artist of the same medium. Collaboration is much more common and welcomed in music or theater — but the “lonely arts” such as painting or photography or poetry are not as open to collaboration and this is partially based on the dynamic and construct of those arts itself. The lonely artist, no matter what type, is confessional. And his pain or joy or struggle is often entirely his own or his own perception or reflection of something outside of him. He doesn’t need or necessarily want help in transmitting his vision – he simply wants to vomit and be done with it. Collaboration, however, even when painful is less grief-stricken and assertive if done in the right way. When it isn’t, wars break out and lives (sometimes literally) can be lost. It is not child’s play. And yet – it requires a child’s devotion…to play.
As someone who has gratefully accepted his strengths as a collaborator and the desire to work in conjugal with someone I trust (in my case, creating directly with my wife) — I look upon Cro and Orr’s collaborations as signs of love and hope. Although sleeker than his solo material, this new work is emotionally robust and penetrating and just might even contain more elements than Cro’s solitary pieces; on one hand this is to be expected as Orr brings a new energy – the buzz of the Rastafarians and the texture of pop cosmology of great graphic novels and illustrations. Their collaborations are thicker, palette almost denser, colors bolder – and it reminds me of both the great children’s books, comic poster art, and some of the classic LP sleeve art of the 1970’s and 1980’s. And as poorly stated as I have just expressed that, I mean it with all my heart. There is something nostalgic about the new work’s visual muscularity…yet something forward-looking. For it is not mere sentiment or kitsch they are after or concerned with. It is the four corners of the mind. They still want to make sure you shed a light on at least one of them…
As we approach
The 31 days of October
Beware of the things…
That go bump in the night
Cause while Mingus composed it. And Henry Miller wrote it. Nobody drew it…quite like the Cro.
“And when the clown cries, the towel dries/All the smeared blood & crimson lies/Clowns don’t cry. They merely wipe their faces with the colors that dripped & smeared/ the silence left after laughter/Clinging in their eyes.” – Dennis Leroy Kangalee
And with that, good people, I leave you with the Cro’s forever motto:
Like what you like
Share what you love
Be a blessing
That you too
Are truly blessed
Cro Dadi resides in Orlando, Florida and can be found on Facebook. Please visit his page, explore his art work. He encourages anyone – anywhere – to reach out and connect.\ https://www.facebook.com/cro.dadi